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by Elaine K Howley

March 14, 2019

Bryan Henry, who has autism, is competing this month at the Special Olympics World Games in Dubai

Bryan Henry is like most other young men his age. The 26-year-old has a job, enjoys watching professional hockey, and loves hanging out with friends.

But unlike many other 26-year-olds, he’ll be competing on an international stage at a world championship this month, and his prospects for winning gold look bright.

Also unlike most other 26-year-olds or top-performing athletes, he has autism.

Nevertheless, the diagnosis hasn’t prevented him from becoming an integral part of his Masters club or from pulling off another uncommon feat—continually swimming faster.

Swimming faster is just one benefit Henry has reaped from swimming with the Raleigh Area Masters workout group, which he joined in 2012. Though he had a lot of experience swimming on his high school team and with the Raleigh Racers, a Special Olympics team in his area, moving to RAM meant a step up in his training.

When they first found the team, Bryan’s mother, Melissa Henry, remembers, they weren’t sure whether it would be a good fit. Would he be accepted by teammates who don’t have special needs? Would he be able to keep up in workouts? Though they weren’t sure it would work, Bryan tried out for RAM anyway.

“After he came back that night, he was so excited,” Melissa says. She adds that Steve Weatherman, a U.S. Masters Swimming Level 3 coach who ran the tryout, was also thrilled, saying that Bryan fit in perfectly. He’s been on the team ever since.

That collaboration has been fruitful for Henry, who set several personal records at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle last July. He went a 2:22.43 in the 200-meter individual medley, 1:05.01 in the 100 butterfly, and 57.66 in the 100 freestyle, all good for gold medals. His performance earned him an invitation to an even bigger event, the Special Olympics World Games, which start Friday in the United Arab Emirates.

His work ethic has been part of the reason he’s done so well.

“At RAM’s noon workouts, Bryan is one of the most consistent attendees, and more often than not he is the fastest one we have in the water. He relishes a challenge, and I’m in the habit of pushing him as far as I can at practice,” says Coach Will Close, an unattached member within the North Carolina LMSC who’s been working closely with Henry since last fall but has known him since his days swimming with the Raleigh Racers.

Though Henry has no doubt worked hard to earn these accolades, his mother is quick to point out that her son didn’t get here all on his own. Rather, he’s had massive support from his Masters Swimming family at RAM.

“Without them, he wouldn’t be doing this,” Melissa says. “It’s hats off to them.”

She says that there’s not generally a lot of competition in Special Olympics swimming, but by joining RAM, he’s being challenged, which has led to him swimming faster and provided a wonderful social outlet for her son. “They’ve embraced him and treat him like one of the guys,” she says. “Without that, I’m not sure he’d be swimming at this level.”

But Close says it’s a two-way street with Bryan and his RAM teammates.

“His talent in the pool and his genuine sincerity seem to inspire his teammates,” Close says. “He is well admired at RAM for his work ethic and speed—he often helps motivate some of our faster athletes to finish a set when it’s more than a little bit painful.”

Recently becoming able to drive to the pool (with his mom in the passenger seat), the challenge of race-pace sets, and working out with his swimming friends are three reasons that keep him going to practice three to four days a week.

“I’ve made a lot of new friends on my Masters team,” Bryan says.

Those friends push him to work harder in the pool every day, Melissa says, as Bryan will often come out from practice and share stories of who was leading and how they worked together to get through tough sets.

But it’s not all racing and speed; Close says Henry has become a student of technique and his diligence has improved his mechanics. That effort, coupled with innate talent, means he’s recently made big strides and dropped a lot of time—but there’s still more room for improvement, an exciting proposition for a coach who relishes the challenge of making fast swimmers swim faster.

“I think the most remarkable way he has grown is that he realizes how much more he is capable of when he studies his own swimming and makes changes,” Close says.

All of Henry’s efforts have endeared him to his RAM teammates, who threw him a send-off party prior to the USA Games in Seattle. As he readies for international competition on an even bigger stage, you can bet his RAM teammates and coaches will be following along, cheering on their teammate with the same level of enthusiasm he brings to every single workout.


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